The Uncomfortable Truth About “Joker”

Last week, I saw Todd Phillips’ “Joker” film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, and I was blown away. It’s such a great movie, even at it’s most disturbing moments. Phoenix shines, the score is incredible, and it blends superhero film with something straight out of Scorsese effortlessly. I came home and started writing a film review, but ultimately, I couldn’t. The controversy surrounding the film stayed my hand, and I didn’t feel comfortable writing anything endorsing the movie, just in case.

As the days went on, I realized that was a mistake. Not just because I was being cowardly, but because I was being a hypocrite. Far removed from silly articles about which Hogwarts house your favorite NFL team is, I wanted to tackle something about the Joker film that I don’t think people are comfortable talking about.

The Uncomfortable Truth About “Joker”

The controversy surrounding Joker stems from concern about the type of person that might be galvanized by a movie about someone rejected by society lashing out, something that regrettably, is very relevant in today’s headlines. As of this writing, there have been at least 21 mass shootings in the United States this year, averaging about one tragedy every 15 days. Not to mention, the Aurora theater shooting, where the perpetrator infamously dressed up as Batman’s iconic nemesis.

The plot of Joker follows a man that has been rejected by society as he plunges into madness and takes out his anger on the world. You see this person being rejected romantically, then by his social worker, by strangers, by children, and by his co-workers. Even though he’s rarely by himself, you get an idea of just how isolated this person is, and by the end of the movie, he’s vindicated by violence. He’s idolized by the disenfranchised, and it wouldn’t be difficult at all to make his descent into insanity an allegory for how political correctness created the least politically correct president in American history.

Not a Trump Article

But that’s not what I think this movie is about. And I think the reason there hasn’t been a disaster attached to this movie is a really uncomfortable and controversial truth. The kind of person that is expected to idolize the Joker in this film… does. As someone with a mental illness, I was disturbed by how easily I could empathize with someone who is so undeniably evil. The character does horrible things consistently throughout the movie, and I was physically uncomfortable watching them.

But I still understood him. I don’t understand Freddie Krueger or Jason Voorhees. I can’t empathize with Ghostface or Michael Myers. Anthony Hopkins was fantastic as Hannibal Lecter, but I never saw myself in him. There’s a scene in Joker where Phoenix breaks down and declares that he often wondered if he even existed, if he was even real, because nobody listened to him. A punchline for one of his jokes is that “the worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

There’s no “crazy” superhero. The closest thing people have to one is Deadpool, and he’s such a caricature that you don’t even think of his mental health as the reason behind his antics. Miles Morales taught us that anyone can be Spider-Man, Captain Marvel struck out at the patriarchy, and T’Challa said that not every superhero looks like Clark Kent.

The Real Villains

There’s no Batman for people with Bipolar Depression, but there is a Two-Face. There’s no Nightwing for people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but there is a Riddler. Terry McGinnis doesn’t struggle with Schizophrenia, but the Mad Hatter does. Believe it or not, there’s not a Robin for Dissociative Identity Disorder, but you better believe there is a Ventriloquist. Mental health has been a crutch for villains in fiction for a long time, and instead of simply explaining the actions of the antagonists, it makes villains of the reader.

The irony behind why there are so many articles about the Joker controversy is that this is exactly what the movie is about. Obviously the Joker is insane, and obviously nobody should emulate what he does, but let’s really look at how he’s treated throughout the movie. For the context of what I’m trying to say here, there are spoilers. Feel free to skip the italicized text if you haven’t seen it yet.

Spoiler Section

His co-workers bully him, with one planting a gun on him early in the movie and trying to get him fired because of it. He’s jumped by kids, who steal and destroy a “going out of business” sign, and when he tries to talk to his boss, he insinuates that he stole the sign himself. His social worker could not care less about him, forcing pills in his hand instead of listening to anything he has to say. He finally takes a chance to do stand-up comedy, and he bombs, and then Robert DeNiro’s character uses it to mock him. Then, the same character tries to bring him on his show to mock him again. When Joker finally turns to madness and commits his first murders, it’s because he was attacked by three men on a train.

The Joker becomes a killer. He becomes a monster, but he wasn’t a monster the whole time. It’s only after the entire world turns their back on him that he resorts to madness. How many people that commit atrocities do so because nobody took the time to be decent to them? Everyone’s so ready for the Joker that they damn Arthur Fleck before he has a chance.

The Joker ends up killing people, but he’s far from the only villain in the film. The people who abuse this person, who is clearly unwell, who clearly needs help, are just as responsible for his violence as he is. And that’s the irony. Because those same people exist in the real world, and many of them leapt at the opportunity to exploit people like Fleck.

People Like Me

The irony of the controversy surrounding this movie is that it condemns people who have done nothing wrong. It points the finger at people who suffer with mental health, people like me, and says we shouldn’t be exposed to a movie because it’ll inspire us to commit terror. That just because we see something in a movie, we’ll emulate it because we think we’ll get the same kind of vindication that Phoenix’s Joker does, gleefully absorbing his chaos.

Maybe the Joker hasn’t inspired chaos because for once, for exactly once, a disenfranchised, disregarded, disrespected chunk of this society feels understood, feels seen. I understand and appreciate the risks attached to a movie like this, and there were moments in the theatre where I jumped because I heard someone ruffling through their bag.

But that wasn’t because of the Joker. It was because that’s the country we live in now. I’ve felt that way at every big movie premier I’ve been to over the last seven years. Regardless of where you sit on gun control, and God knows I’ve got my own opinion, we have a mental health crisis in this country, and I really think that maybe, just maybe, it’s something we should work on.

Or just blame fictional clowns.

Whatever works for you.


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